Friday, June 27, 2014

High School All-Star Alumni Interview: Maya Kronfeld

This month’s alumni interview digs back almost to the twentieth century: a time when the High School All-Stars was a young program, still led by founding director, Dee Spencer. Maya Kronfeld played piano in the All-Stars her senior year of high school before going on to do both undergraduate and graduate studies at Cal Berkeley. For the last five years she has been in close collaboration with jazz vocalist and composer Valerie Troutt, as well as the Valerie Troutt Jazz Soul Quartet, and the duo project Two Shoes Shouting.

Two Shoes Shouting

Who did you look up to as a young artist? Did you have any heroes or mentors?

"My dad was a jazz drummer, starting in Israel, and he taught me how to count time, snap on 2 and 4. I think he considered that a basic life skill. I'm always in conversation with him -- with the drums -- when I play. I didn't develop a special relationship to the piano until I met my teacher Libby McLaren, who taught me to play "Empty Pocket Blues" and hooked me for life, and later Susan Muscarella who taught me Wynton Kelly's solo in "Freddie Freeloader" and encouraged me every week to "swing like a mad dog." It's a huge gift to have teachers like that. They taught me how to play but they also taught me to love playing. A lot of people didn't receive that from their teachers. In addition you can't understate the importance of playing with, being encouraged by, and having your butt utterly kicked by musicians your own age or a little bit older. They become your mentors, too. Ambrose Akinmusire, Michael Aaberg, Geechi Taylor, Justin Brown, Howard Wiley, Sista Kee -- these were all the young lions, now legendary, that I grew up listening to in the Bay Area, and going to jam sessions with. What influenced me even more than any gorgeous or outrageous note they ever played was the seriousness and total commitment to art that they had even as very, very young people. Young people mentor each other. But people can't rely solely on that -- they also need institutions to support young musicians. These days, a young person is lucky if he/she receives musical instruction at school, and think of what we're missing as a result!

What have you been doing musically since the High School All-Stars?

"I worked full-time as a musician before I started my PhD. I work regularly with some amazing vocalists coming out of the Bay Area, like Zoe Ellis and Destani Wolf, and cross-coastally with Natalie John. Recently I've been in close collaboration with vocalist and composer Valerie Troutt. We have a duo project called Two Shoes Shouting, and as the Valerie Troutt Jazz Soul Quartet we have just released an album called "The Sound of Peace." I learn a lot from her about the roots of jazz, the history of struggle and survival encoded in the sounds.

As a keyboard player, and on a more electric front, I've toured with Grammy award-winner Van Hunt. I recently toured with monster drummer (and bay area native) Thomas Pridgen and his band The Memorials. I like touring with them because wherever we go we meet people who are drum fanatics, and as I said I am a drum-centric person due to my father. They all laugh at me because we are playing in thrashingly loud environments, and I always have books with me I need to study. But of course there's nothing alien about that because all musicians are (secretly or not-so-secretly) the most philosophical of cats.

I get to play every Sunday at Independent Holiness Church with another legendary drummer, Tommie Bradford, and I've also been involved recently in some gospel recording projects like Dale Anthony's Faith Out Loud. Playing in church took apart my whole approach to piano and put it back together again; but on the other hand there never was any American music without gospel music. So in a way it's what I have been trying to play it all along. Lots of lessons to be learned from this music..."

What else have you been doing lately? Can you tell us about your day job, hobbies?

"I'm working on a PhD in Comparative Literature, at UC Berkeley. That's a new official commitment for me, but I've always been serious about studying. My mom is an amazing and beloved professor of literature and the joy she gets from teaching poetry made me want to join the family business. Unfortunately, studying philosophy and literature doesn't make you a better pianist, but on the other hand being a musician sure can help improve the theoretical questions about art that you want to develop. This summer I'm headed to the University of Dublin in Ireland to give a conference talk about jazz and the philosopher Theodore Adorno’s ideas on musical rhythm. That's one area where my interests do converge, but I also like it when they don't. Fiction, philosophy and music all work differently and follow different kinds of rules, but I'm interested in all three; the important thing is the kind of learning each one promotes.

I'm starting to learn a lot from teaching, in different areas-- I teach music at summer camps like Cazadero and Jam Camp West, to private piano students, and at UC Berkeley I'm starting to teach writing courses for freshman as part of my own training for the PhD. It's not unlike teaching piano: you are teaching them, hopefully, how to practice, but then the teaching itself requires its own kind of practicing and you need mentors for that. I subscribe to the "shedding" model of academia!"

Maya at the keys

Does your All-Stars experience inform your life now in any ways?

"I'm so lucky that I got to be in the SFJAZZ All-Star band. It was my senior year of high school, and I couldn't believe I got to play with the kind of peers I wanted to listen to, let alone play with. The feeling of the band was one of incredible pride in one another. It was a precious opportunity, to experience in this day and age the feeling of being in an actual "band" -- a committed group that remains more or less constant. I sometimes even miss it today when, as a professional musician, you often move from project to project (this probably has a 21st century economic explanation). The feeling of being a great big cohesive unit was extraordinary. Under the direction of Dr. Dee Spencer, you would learn how to take dead seriously a new form of feedback: the feedback wasn't about your individual performance; it was about how what you just played affected the group sound. That's an important kind of criticism for a young person to learn how to hear. Bass, piano, drums: it's the first time I really developed a full-blooded concept of what it means to be part of the rhythm section -- a responsibility to take pride in!

The Essentially Ellington Competition in New York was one of my great highlights. During the Q&A I got to ask Wynton Marsalis what I felt was a mischievous and leading question: why did he put so much emphasis on "the tradition" in jazz? Was there nothing new to learn? His answer took a while to sink in. So did the Ellington composition we were learning to play: "Such Sweet Thunder," a devastating, molasses kind of swing that won't be rushed. I also met a brilliant pianist at the competition (from a rival band!) who became one of my best friends. And I feel especially bonded to my fellow rhythm section players from the All-Star band -- it doesn't matter that we are rarely in the same city at the same time -- when we happen to see one another at someone's gig, there is a very rooted connection which is like family, because of all those hours of trying to hold the time together!"

You can see and hear more of Maya’s recent involvement with Valerie Troutt at

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